By Michael Rosenberg
Nobody realized the boy in the wheelchair would die. A grenade had exploded in his yard, a deadly pebble in Somalia’s civil war, but even as Abdul Rahman Ali got wheeled toward the hospital, the wounds from the shrapnel were not easy to recognize. When he passed, at age 12 or so, he left behind four siblings, including a baby sister.
Ramla Ali was lucky. She was spared, not just by the weapon that took her brother, but of the pain that would haunt her family. She was too young to remember, though how young remains a mystery. Ramla was born in a country racked by violence to a mother who was forbidden from attending school and never learned to read or write. The family has no record of when Ramla was born. It was sometime around 1990.
The Ali family would move to London, toward a more peaceful life in a different world. But on Monday night in Tokyo, Ramla competed in the Olympics as her brother knew her the last time he saw her: as a child of Somalia.
Nobody knew the girl had learned to box. Well, there wasn’t really anybody to tell. Young Ramla was a chubby kid, and when kids at school learned where she was born, they teased her. “Being Somalian,” she says now, “was like a diss.” Sometimes she lied about her heritage. She has lighter skin than most Somalians, and at school, it was easy to claim she was Arab or from the Caribbean. But at home, there was no escaping her birthplace.
“If you walk into my mom’s house, you’re walking into Somalia,” Ramla says. “The smell. The decor. The language. The mannerisms. Everything.”
Her mother encouraged her to get a junior gym membership so she could exercise. She hoped Ramla would swim or run. But when Ramla saw that the gym had a boxing class, she was intrigued and signed up. She understood implicitly that her mother would not approve. But she was not worried the subject would come up.
“We don’t really talk about things in my family,” she says. “In African culture, you don’t talk about anything. You don’t talk about what you do, you don’t talk about your mental health, you don’t talk about how your day has been. It’s weird.”
On the day of her first boxing class, Ramla looked through a window to the room at her fellow students in their yoga pants with their hair up. Ramla was wearing an oversized T-shirt and baggy pants—to “hide everything I disliked about myself, my body image,” she says now—and she felt so out of place that she declined to go inside. By the second class, she found the courage to go in. She was 12 or 13, a girl with no birthday. But now she had a passion.
“It gave me this sort of euphoric experience,” she says.
She kept her boxing to herself for years. As she grew older and got better, “the guilt started kicking in and the fear started kicking in.” But what could she do? She loved boxing and she loved her mother. To keep them both in her life, she had to keep them apart.
Then one day, after years of this, she was called into her mother’s living room.
“I remember thinking, ‘Why is everyone here? Something’s wrong,’ ” she says. “And they said, ‘Sit down. We really need to talk to you.’ ”
Her mother had found out about her boxing and wanted her to stop. She had lost her son to a stray grenade. She had lost a nephew to a stabbing outside of his high school in the U.K. She was terrified of losing another child.
She asked Ramla: “Don’t you feel bad that you’re getting in the ring with someone else’s daughter?”
Ramla did not feel bad. She did not expect her opponents to feel bad, either. But she told her mother she would quit.
Her boxing friends did not understand her decision. Her coach at the time suggested she move out and do what she wanted with her life. To all of them, she was a British girl who liked to box. But when she looked at her mother, she knew she was Somali.
“I thought, ‘You don’t understand me at all if you think that I will completely estrange myself from my family,’ ” Ramla says.
Nobody knew the woman went back to the gym. She had quit for at least six months to please her mother, but the days slowly destroyed her. She says now, “I couldn’t talk to anyone. I was very sad, very lonely. The gym just kept calling.”
She was in her 20s by now. She put on the gloves and returned to her secret. She met a man named Richard Moore, and he became both her coach and her husband. She hoped she would be selected to compete for the British national team, but she never was.
She thought about competing for Somalia. At first, it seemed like a cop-out. But she came to like the idea. She felt Somalian. She did an interview with a Somali news channel, expressing her desire to compete for the country where she was born.
Her uncle, her mother’s brother, saw it. He called to say how proud he was of her, and that he was heartbroken to know she had been rising through the ranks without her family’s support. The uncle agreed to talk to her mother.
Nobody paid much attention when Ramla Ali lost her bout to Romania’s Maria Claudia Nechita on Monday in Tokyo. Nobody except the two boxers and the people who love them.
Ramla’s mother escaped Somalia but not the memories of its violence. It is still one of the most dangerous countries in the world and a political morass; just this week, the U.S. military said it carried out an airstrike there on Friday against the militant group Al-Shabaab. SI has decided not to name some people in this story, including Ramla’s mother, out of respect for their safety and the safety of their family members in Somalia.
Ramla’s mother still can’t read. She struggles with technology. But she drilled her kids on the importance of education.
She had seven children.
One is a doctor.
Two are nurses.
One works in artificial intelligence.
One is a sports nutritionist.
One died young when a grenade exploded in his yard.
One has a law degree and stepped into the ring at Kokugikan Arena in Tokyo on Monday night.
The day before the fight, Ramla and her mother spoke on the phone. Her mother said she hoped Ramla did well. She said she wanted her daughter to be happy.